Saturday, December 2, 2017

California Update

(See the bottom of the post for definitions of some terms used herein.)

FIGURE 1: My cycling over the last 7 weeks. The number under each day is the minutes of riding I did that day. A blue background means it was ridden at a moderate speed. A green background means it was ridden at an easy speed. A red background means it was a fast or hard ride. Ignore the yellow shading under min/wk, it is not relevant to this post.

Last post, I enumerated two goals for my future cycling, and since that post, I have added a third. Here are my current cycling goals:
  1. Maintain my physical and mental health.
  2. Get in shape for the Eroica California next spring.
  3. Decide if I can reach a fitness level sufficient to complete a 100K populaire or a 200K brevet through the hills of California.
When I wrote my last post, I had just completed my first week of cycling in California (the week of 10/9/2017 in the figure at the top of this post). During this first week, I established a "go-to" ride and although I have continued to explore alternative routes now and then, this go-to ride has been the backbone of my training. In order to accomplish my first goal, I was shooting for 300 minutes of cycling a week, perhaps increasing that to 400 minutes to correct for the unevenness of my effort over that ride. For the next five weeks, rode 3 to 4 days per week, doing a pretty good job of meeting my "corrected" goal of 400 minutes of cycling a week, so Goal 1 Accomplished!

Starting the week of 11/13/2017, my son started joining me for most of my rides, and coincidentally, that was my sixth week of riding. I had read somewhere and have confirmed for myself that to maximize improvement one should change one's exercise plan every six weeks or so. With that in mind, week seven my son and I decided to kick it up a notch and revisit Old La Honda Road, a four mile long hill with an average grade of 8%. When my son and I rode Old La Honda a year ago, I wrote "By the time I got home [from riding Old La Honda Road] I was completely done in, I had nothing left to give." This year was no different, the Old La Honda climb is at the limit of my ability. 

So far, I have done nothing specific to accomplish goal 2, to get ready for the Eroica California, but I think that is appropriate. What I need to be doing right now towards meeting goal 2 is build a base of fitness on which I can later prepare specifically for that ride, probably starting in February. Has my last seven weeks of cycling been doing that? I felt like it had, but I wanted a sanity check so went back to a book that I have previously discussed on this blog, "Distance Cycling" by John Hughes and Dan Kehlenbach. I picked this book because unlike many of the books I have read that seem to be targeted at young racers, this book seemed to be targeted at someone like me, someone who loves to ride and enjoys the occasional challenge but who has no competitive ambitions and wants to keep things simple and fun. Chapter 3 of that book outlines an easy to understand 8 week base training program consisting of a mix of aerobic, resistance, and flexibility training. This is where I should have started 7 weeks ago. Shame on me, I only did the aerobic part, and too much of that. To tell the truth, however, I am not too worried. I believe that the aerobic part is the most important. I keep hoping to introduce resistance and flexibility training into my routine, but best is the enemy of good and while maintaining that hope, I congratulate myself for avoiding the worst training plan of all, doing nothing. Between now and February, I think I should continue to build a base of aerobic endurance, and after that, if during February and March I continue training and ride my antique Bianchi Specialissima up and down the local hills every now and then, I will be as prepared as I can be for Eroica California 2018; so Goal 2 is On Track.

FIGURE 2: My Weights. Although I have not been doing the weight training that both the medical and training communities recommend, I did bring my weights with me from Texas, and they stare at me every time I go out to the garage. Hopefully, I will actually use them some day. As for flexibility training, my younger son's girlfriend has become obsessed with getting me to join their Sunday yoga class. As I told her, we shall see.

Just because I am continuing base training does not mean that my training shouldn't change. Every base training plan I have seen features progression over the base period, increasing volume and the slow introduction of some rides of higher intensity, and that is what I plan to do during the next 6 weeks. I do confess, however, that although I definitely kicked things up a notch for week 7, there was no plan involved, my riding was ad hoc, being driven mostly by my son's love of Old La Honda Road. I spent the following weekend thinking about what I really should be doing in in my second block of training. To that end,  I looked back at my old posts on training. When I did so, I was reminded that they were largely directed towards randonneuring, towards preparing for a 200K brevet. That caused me to wax nostalgic and add a third goal to the two I had enunciated in my last post, to decide if I can return to randonneuring. To that end, I looked for 200K brevets (120 mile rides) and randonneuring clubs in my area of which there are plenty. However, based on my past experience, I think there is a real possibility that a 200K brevet is beyond me, so looked at 100K populaires (60 mile rides) as well. Besides my past difficulties preparing for 200K brevets, there is also the issue of hills. The 200K brevets I did back in Texas were fairly flat. The 200K brevets I found in California typically include between 5,000 and 9,000 feet of climbing over their 120 miles, and the easiest 100K populaires included 4,000 feet of climbing. By way of comparison, the Old La Honda ride, which is 20 miles long and which leaves me exhausted, includes just over 2,000 feet of climbing. Clearly, there is a large fitness gap between where I am now and where I would have to be to participate in a California brevet or even a populaire.

Final point; I am so happy to be riding with my son! If at the end of everything, my fitness sucked and I was unable to participate in Eroica California but had a good time with him, I would count it as a huge success.

Putting this all together, what should I my second block of training look like? One day a week, I plan to ride up Old La Honda Road with my son. My reasons are two-fold. First, my son loves this ride (as do I) and I love riding with my son. Second, what I hope will happen is that with repetition, I will get better at it, preparing me for the hills that are a fact of life in California.  Do any of my training books suggest that is a good plan? To help answer the question, I diagrammed various training plans given in "Distance Cycling" and compared them to what I propose to do.

FIGURE 3: Training Plans. "Base", "Century Prep", and "Century/Month" are training plans from "Distance Cycling".  I exercised some creative license, especially for the "Base" plan where I converted all aerobic cross training ("Racquetball", "Basketball") into cycling minutes.  All of these plans also include resistance and flexibility exercises which I have yet to integrate into my training. "My Plan" is a slightly abstracted version of what I was riding at the end of my first 6 weeks (Block 1) and what I hope to do during my second 6 weeks (Block 2). Rides in blue are "pace" rides, ridden at a moderate speed that I can comfortably maintain for hours but that are fast enough to leave me tired by the end. Rides in red are "intense" rides where I ride as fast as I can for part of the ride. (Traditionally, this is accomplished with intervals. I accomplish this by climbing hills.) Rides in green are "recovery" rides where I keep the speed very slow to insure I do not tire my body, but just stretch out my muscles to facilitate the recovery process.

None of the training plans in "Distance Cycling" include anything like a 4 mile, 8% grade training ride, certainly not during base training. (That is pretty much true for any base training plans in any book I have ever read.) That said, "Distance Cycling" is very non-prescriptive, suggesting general concepts rather than detailed protocols, so I feel empowered to be creative. Also, my goals are different than the goals of any of the training plans in "Distance Cycling", so I think I need to create my own plan to match my goals. Looking at the "Distance Cycling" training plans above, they include four kinds of rides; recovery rides, pace rides, long rides, and intense rides. Intense rides are usually intervals, but Old La Honda is certainly intense, so I am going to count it as such. Even though this is a bit unconventional, I think if I am careful and listen to my body, I will be fine. Besides, if I can't get comfortable going up Old La Honda, then I have answered the question posed in my Goal 3, there would be no California randonneuring for me. Finally, I am hoping that all this climbing will build the leg strength I will need to complete Eroica California with the pathetic "low" gear on my Bianchi Specialissima.

Old La Honda is one ride, how would it fit into a training schedule and what should the rest of the schedule look like? I propose to make my second 6 weeks an evolution from my successful first 6 weeks. By the end of my first 6 weeks, I was riding my go-to ride four times a week. During my second 6 weeks, I propose to make the following changes:
  1. Replace one of those go-to rides with the intense ride up Old La Honda Road.
  2. Drop one of the go-to rides.
  3. Add two short, easy recovery rides.
Interestingly, this involves a decrease in the amount of riding I will be doing (measured as minutes per week.) However, intense rides "count" more than pace rides (and recovery rides count less) so if I apply reasonable corrections for that (1 minute of an intense ride = 2 minutes of a pace ride, 2 minutes of a recovery ride = 1 minute of a pace ride), the "corrected" minutes per week works out to 490, a reasonable increase.

As a sanity check, I compared my proposed schedule with training plans from "Distance Cycling". When I do that, here is what I notice:
  1. I jumped into riding much faster than "Distance Cycling" recommends; at the end of the 8 week base building period, "Distance Cycling" would have me riding 330 minutes a week. At the end of my first 6 week block, I was riding 440 minutes a week. Oh well, that is water under the bridge, and seems to have turned out fine, though I will stay alert for signs of overtraining.
  2. My second 6 week block looks much more reasonable compared to either the plan to prepare for a century ride or the maintenance plan to ride a century each month. This reassures me that the stress my second 6 weeks will put on my body is reasonable. That said, we are all different, I am an old man, so again, I will stay alert for signs of overtraining.
  3. There is less day to day and week to week variation in my first 6 weeks and even in my second 6 weeks than either of the century plans. When I think about what I am trying to accomplish, this makes sense to me. What I am trying to do is, in intent, more like a base training program than a specific program to prepare for century rides. Base programs have less variation (though, as I have noted, they do involve some progression.) As I listen to my body, I will be listening for a training schedule that is sustainable over the long haul and, to me, that means less variation.
  4. One important way that my plan lacks variation is that it lacks recovery weeks. Both of the century training plans have recovery weeks every three to four weeks. Part of what I am planning around is the inevitable "accidental" weeks off. For example, I have a lot of family travel scheduled in December and so will have some "recovery weeks" I cannot avoid. But again, I will stay alert for signs of overtraining, and take recovery weeks as needed.
Being the person I am, I cannot help but think ahead, sometimes too far ahead. What will I do starting in February to prepare for Eroica California? If I get comfortable going up Old La Honda Road, then what? When, if ever, should I start working on making my rides longer? If things go well, what are the next steps to try to prepare for a brevet? I am trying to ignore such questions for now, to enjoy cycling during my second six weeks as much as I did for my first, and to take it as it goes. Stay tuned to find out what I do.


A bike ride which is 100 miles long.
A training technique used to build speed consisting of interleaving brief stretches of riding very fast with stretches of riding slow to recover. An example would be sprinting for 1 minute, riding slow for 1 minute, repeated 10 times.
A traditional kind of cycling, dating back to the 1890s, which consists of groups of riders who ride together but do not compete against each other. Rather, each rider challenges themself to complete long rides.
Long bike rides, varying between 200K (124 miles) and 1200K (744 miles), which make up the sport of randonneuring. Randonneurs earn awards for completing brevets or groups of brevets.
In addition to completing challenges, randonneurs sometimes do easier rides to get in shape for future challenges, to have fun, or to introduce new riders to the sport. These shorter rides, varying in length between 100K (62 miles) and just under 200K (up to 100 miles or so) are called Populaires. There are no awards associated with populaires.

Friday, November 10, 2017

California vs Texas

In both Texas and California, automobile drivers need constant reminders as to how to coexist with cyclists. One piece of good news is that reminders such as this are often set up to block the very bike lane they claim to protect! Not so in this case, the sign is in the parking lane, the bike lane being to its left. (This is the exception rather than the rule, even in California.)

Last post, I noted "it turns out access to desirable cycling is significantly more difficult from my house than it was from [my son's, a few minutes away]." That was after only two real rides from my new house. With a few weeks cycling under my belt, that difference, though real, seems smaller than at first, and I feel reasonably comfortable heading out from my house for a bike ride. I think this is simply a matter of familiarity, and when I think back, I think I had similar discomfort both when I first started riding in Houston almost 10 years ago and when I first started staying with my son and riding from his house, about a year ago.

This is not to say that there are no differences between Texas*, where I cycled for the last ten years, and California*, where I am biking today. The traffic is heavier in California. (This actually impacts me even more as a driver than it does for me as a cyclist.) I feel like people in California are less patient. On the other hand, Californians seem a bit more accepting of cyclists and more savvy about how to deal with us. Quality and availability of bike lanes is mixed in both Texas and California, though the advantage clearly goes to California on this point. The bike lanes I am using today are much more similar to where Bike Houston hopes that the Houston Bike Plan will take them ten years from now than to where Houston is today. Still, the problems are similar. In both Texas and California some bike lanes are too narrow or poorly maintained. People park in them, set up signs in them, and on garbage day, put out their garbage cans in them. California has many more high quality bike lanes and fewer low quality ones, but other than that, the problems with bike lanes between the two locations is pretty similar. The biggest difference, however, is the hills. The roads I rode in Texas were flat, flat, flat and the roads I now ride in California are anything but. Last post, I blogged about the changes this promised to make in my "training" strategy; due to the hills, I am relying more on Relative Perceived Exertion (RPE) and less at riding at a controlled heart rate less, tracking the miles I ride less, and the minutes I ride more. Already, it is quite clear that I was right to make these changes. That said, I wondered how good I job I was doing with RPE. I knew just from the Perceived part that my riding was by necessity less steady, more variable than what I had been doing in Texas; there is simply no way to avoid extra Exertion going up some of the hills, gears can only do so much, and try as I might, going down the hills is, in some cases, so fast, I have no choice but to coast.

Although I do not plan to use a heart rate monitor to nearly as much as I did in Texas, I did want to compare what I thought I was doing by RPE to what an heart rate monitor measured, but I wanted to wait until I had found a "go-to" bike ride before doing that. At any given point in time, I have always had a go-to bike ride. In Texas, there were times when it was Terry Hershey and George Bush parks, there were times when it was Braes Bayou, and there were many times it was the Rice Track. Depending on time and context (Was I training for a brevet? Was I struggling with challenges in my life?) my go-to ride would change, but I always had one; the ride I would do when I didn't want to think about it, I just wanted a ride. For the moment, this is my go-to bike ride in California:

My go-to ride takes Alameda de las Pulgas south from Edgewood to its end at Stanford University, then Alpine Road to Portola Road to Mountain Home Road to CaƱada Road to Jefferson Avenue, and finally through a series of local streets in the neighborhood of Emerald Hills and then home.

I ended up with this as my go-to ride because it is less hilly than most of the alternatives (though it is far from flat), there is a good bike lane through most of it, and because it goes through some beautiful scenery (another metric where California easily beats Texas.) Once I had ridden it a few times and had a sense of how to moderate my RPE, I strapped on a heart rate monitor to get an objective look at how I was doing. Mostly, I tried to take it easy, but pushed on the last climb up Jefferson Avenue to give myself a benchmark for a high heart rate. I was not surprised by the result, I knew my effort was uneven, but I was disappointed. During a roughly two hour ride, about 30 minutes were ridden in heart rate zone 1, about 60 minutes were ridden in heart rate zone 2 (my target), about 20 minutes were ridden in heart rate zone 3 (the "grey" zone, too easy to build strength, to hard to build endurance), about four minutes were in heart rate zone 4, and about 30 seconds in the top heart rate zone, zone 5. All of the zone 5 and virtually all of the zone 4 were on that final climb where I deliberately pushed myself.

So what does it all mean? It depends on who you ask. I currently have two goals for my cycling. The first is to help maintain my physical and mental health, and for how I am doing at meeting that goal, I ask the Medical Establishment. My second goal is to get in shape for the Eroica California next spring. For the purposes of getting into shape, for maximizing my performance, I look to the Exercise Community, folks like Joe Friel and Philip Maffetone.

The Medical Establishment speaks of three or four levels of effort; mild, moderate, vigorous, and recently, high intensity. They claim that to maximize good health, one should spend 300 minutes a week doing moderate aerobic exercise, that mild aerobic exercise is of no value, that vigorous aerobic exercise is earns double minutes (e.g. 150 minutes of vigorous exercise is equal to 300 minutes of moderate exercise) and in some recent experiments, high intensity exercise is worth 45 times as much as moderate intensity exercise. I have tentatively concluded that zone 1 corresponds to mild aerobic exercise, zone 2 corresponds to moderate aerobic exercise, zone 4 corresponds to vigorous aerobic exercise, and that the high end of zone 5 (which I never reached on this ride) corresponds to high intensity aerobic exercise. How about zone 3? On that, I have no opinion. It should count at least as much as moderate exercise, but I wonder if it qualifies as vigorous exercise? To date, I have been counting all my riding as moderate (which is what the Medical Establishment suggests I do) and so have been shooting for at least 300 minutes of riding a week. But what if I subdivide those rides into different levels of exercise? If I lump the whole ride together as "moderate", I get credit for 111 minutes. If I subdivide and count zone 3 as vigorous and ignore zone 1, I get credit for 101 minutes. If I subdivide and count zone 3 as moderate and ignore zone 1, I get credit for 85 minutes. All that coasting is costing me! If I were to correct for this, then I should be shooting for more like 400 total ride minutes a week to make sure I get as much aerobic exercise as the Medical Establishment advises.

The Exercise Community is much more enthusiastic about cycling in zone 1 than the Medical Establishment, but much less enthusiastic about cycling in zone 3. They like zones 4 and 5, but only at the right time in a training program. Because I am restarting cycling after months off the bike, the Exercise Community would recommend I spend all my time in zones 1 and 2, and would advise me that any time in higher zones risk compromising the building of a base on which all future training relies; that the problem is not the 30 minutes in zone 1, but the 20 minutes in zone 3, and in fact there is no good way to correct for that. Joe Friel, in "The Cyclists Training Bible", says about his recommended ride during base building: "Stay primarily in zones 1 and 2 on a rolling course of up to 4 percent grade." Here is the grade of my go-to ride:

Unfortunately, Garmin Training Center does not have the best graphics capabilities, so what I did was use the route slider to find the steepest grade on the ride (9%) and a point at the recommended maximum grade (4%) and clearly, much of my ride violates Joe Friel's criteria for base building. This would appear to be reflected by both my RPE and my heart rate. At this point, I can imagine some of my readers rolling their eyes, thinking that I am seriously over-thinking this, and Joe Friel would agree. He notes that his advice is for the serious racer, and that for a casual rider like me, random riding is probably as good training as anything else. Nonetheless, all this reassures me that my instincts are right, that I should be trying to minimize hills and reigning back on my effort until I feel ready to go all out.

So what do I need to accomplish to be ready for Eroica California? There are two things:
1) Become sufficiently fit for a 40 mile ride over undulating terrain, 12 miles of which are dirt...
2) ...on my stock Bianchi Specialissima

The first accomplishment is fairly straightforward both to understand and to complete. I would definitely want to prepare for Eroica, but have little doubt I would succeed doing so; if I could ride it on my Volpe or my Crosscheck.

The second accomplisment is less obvious; why does the bicycle matter? There are a few reasons, but by far the most important is gears. My Bianchi Specialissima came with Campagnolo Gran Sport derailleurs, which have a maximum rear cog size of 26 teeth. That, along with its Campagnolo cranks with the old 151 BCD (Bolt Circle Diameter) and minimum front chainring size of 44 teeth, means that my Specialissima does not support very low gears. My Volpe has the lowest gears of any of my bikes, and if I were in the smallest front chainring, and the largest rear cog (the lowest gear, 24 inches), I would have to shift the rear derailleur to higher gears five times before I reached the same gear as the lowest gear on my Specialissima (47 inches). Thus, I have to acquire the strength and skill to navigate undulations and some on dirt using a relatively high low gear. As of this moment, I have no idea how I am going to do that. Stay tuned to see if I figure it out.

Future of This Blog

When I started this blog back in 2012, I promised a post a week, and for the first 100 posts, I did a pretty good job of maintaining that. Since then, my record has been dismal. I have some pretty good excuses, but honestly, I just don't think my current cycling warrants that many posts. As of this post, I am going to try to maintain a rate of one post a month. I hope by doing that I can keep them interesting.

* The city of Houston, Texas has about the same area as the San Francisco Bay Peninsula, the strip of land between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean stretching from the southern border of the city of San Francisco to the northern border of the city of San Jose. Both Texas and California are exceptionally large states (#2 and #3 in size among the 51 states, respectively) so the California vs Texas comparison of the title is meant to refer to the relatively small parts of each state in which I routinely bicycled. Houston represented a fairly good approximation for that. San Carlos, on the other hand, is a relatively small city, a small fraction of both the Peninsula and the area through which I cycle. To be accurate, I would have to refer to Houston vs the San Francisco Bay Peninsula, but to avoid the awkwardness of that, I will simply refer to California vs Texas.

Sunday, October 15, 2017


The seven bikes I moved, in Texas, just before the movers put them in their van. In the back, from left to right, is a small Diamondback bike that my granddaughter should be able to ride in a few years, my son's large Centurion, my late wife Agi's 1970's Gitane (almost completely hidden), and her Public bike she used as a commuter. In the front, left to right, are my trusty Surly Cross Check, my 1960 Bianchi Specialissima, and Agi's road bike, another Surly Cross Check. Two other bikes, my red three speed and my sons' black Giant, I considered not worth moving and donated to Ghost Bikes to be painted white and used as markers for cyclists who died in traffic accidents. See the bottom of this post for links to the posts where these bicycles are described.

The same seven bikes in their new home in California. It would be weeks before I rode any of them. So far, I have ridden Agi's commuter (which fits me fine) and my Surly.

My last post was almost two months ago. A week after that post, Hurricane Harvey hit, flooding the house I had just sold. Would the sale hold? (So far, it has, but it is still a few weeks to the closing.) So, there I was, preparing best I could for the hurricane, then cleaning up the mess from the hurricane, all on top of my already-ambitious moving schedule.

The good news is that the move happened and me and my bikes are now in residence in the fair city of San Carlos, CA. The bad news is that it took every bit of strength I had to accomplish that, and my cycling and blogging suffered. In that post of two months ago, I promised the following:
" current plan is to do one more post from Houston, tying up a few loose ends before leaving, and then the one after that to be the first of what I hope are a long series about cycling in California. Stay tuned to see if I follow that plan."
This did not, in fact, happen. So, this post will keep that promise in an abbreviated form.

Loose Ends from Houston

  • After a much longer struggle and with many more twists and turns than originally anticipated, the Houston Bike Plan passed. This now provides a framework to help the City of Houston continue building its cycling infrastructure.
  • Mysteriously one day, Bike Houston announced that their office was moving. Did they lose their lease on their old property? Fortunately, the disruption of that move seems to not have been too harmful, they seem to be chugging along as before.
  • I never got to know the people at Bike Houston all that well, but from the little I knew them, I liked them a lot! I particularly liked Mary Blitzer. Sadly, it was the point in Mary's career for her to move on and so she has left Bike Houston. Jessica Wiggins stepped up to fill her shoes, and I am sure everything will go on as before.
  • The Braes Bayou trail continues to grow on both ends. I had hoped to explore this trail and perhaps even take some pictures, but alas, that was not to be.

Cycling in California

It's too soon to say what my cycling in California will be like. So far, I have only done four rides, and the first two were shakedown rides of a few miles around my new neighborhood. I thought I had some idea what my riding might look like from the rides I did during my extended stay with my son, who lives just a few miles up the road. However, despite that proximity, it turns out access to desirable cycling is significantly more difficult from my house than it was from his. Perhaps I will just have to suck it up and learn to live with an unpleasant several minutes at the start of every ride, or perhaps I will find some side streets that are more pleasant than the main roads. How this will impact my cycling is the question.

As regular readers of this blog know, I love to track my riding. I have gotten some criticism in the past for being overly concerned with tracking, a criticism with which I disagree. I wonder if my critics understand why I track my rides? I do it because it's fun, it's motivating, and because it helps me avoid overdoing my riding, a real concern at my age. Because the kinds of rides I can do in California are very different than the kinds of rides I could do in Houston, I have already made some changes in my tracking, and expect that my tracking will continue to evolve as I gain more experience riding here in California. For example, because hills drastically affect the speed of a ride, and thus the number of miles that can be covered for a fixed effort, I am now tracking rides by minutes rather than miles. Once I have this all figured out, I may do a blog post on it.

One piece of good news is that I have a goal; to ride in the Eroica California next April. At least one of my Modesto Roadmen buddies plans to attend, which, along with my ownership of a 1960 Bianchi Specialissima, inspired my interest in this ride. (Eroica is a celebration of classic (pre-1988) bikes, and only these are permitted.) There are rides varying in length between 40 and 127 miles, all of which include at least some unpaved sections. The challenge of this ride consists in equal parts of getting in shape for even the shortest ride and restoring my bianchi to both rideable and original condition, somewhat conflicting requirements.

Blog Posts about the Bikes Pictured Above

1) My Bikes: In my fourth post on this blog, I discussed every bicycle I had owned. I have not purchased any additional bicycles for myself since then, so this remains a pretty comprehensive list.
2) Old Bikes, Part Deux: Early on, I did a post on some old bicycles I saw on Martha's Vineyard, while vacationing in Massachusetts. The post linked to here was an extension, looking at old bicycles that were in my garage. Between this and the previous post, only one of my bikes was missed..
3) An Unfortunate 3-Speed: The picture and history of this sad bicycle are stuck in the middle of an unrelated post.
4) Bianchi v. Surly: Another view of some of my bikes, focusing on my Bianchi Specialissima and my Surly Crosscheck.
5) Sad News: My late wife Agi commuted to work by bicycle, and for years, we had planned to buy her a dedicated commuter. When we finally did, I was so consumed with caring for her in her last months that I never blogged about it. Only in the blog post where I announced her death did I discuss that bike. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Stress and the Aging Cyclist

Two posts ago ("Sad News") I revealed that the "That Which Must Not Be Named", which had been interfering with my cycling, was my wife's fight against ovarian cancer, and that she had finally succumbed to that disease. By the end of December of 2016, we pretty much knew the fight was over except for the crying. In January, however, the brilliant doctors at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center came up with a treatment that did not affect the outcome, but did delay it by some months, and during those months my wife felt almost normal. Starting in mid-December, I was unable to ride. However, when that treatment kicked in in February, I was able to ride again, as shown on the above MAF test graph. By May, this treatment wore off (and could not be repeated) which meant I could not ride again. I restarted riding 10 days after my wife's death, but did so in California where I cannot ride MAF tests. By the time I returned to Texas in mid-July, I had regained a great deal of lost fitness, and since then have been more or less maintaining that level of fitness, at least as measured by a MAF test.

So here I am, living in limbo. Last post, I described how I expect my cycling to change once I move to California, but probably that is still a month away, and longer still before I am settled. What am I doing in the meantime? Contrary to the title of my last post, I am riding MAF tests. Why MAF tests? It is crushingly hot and humid in Houston in the summer, and the only time I can ride is right after sunrise. Trying to do more interesting rides (and there are rides I would love to do before leaving Houston forever) would expose me to rush hour traffic and, because such rides are usually longer, to more heat. So, the Rice Track it is. I don't always ride MAF tests at the track. One of my wife's former colleagues has become a riding buddy, and the days he shows up, I ignore heart rate and just ride and chat with him. However, on days I find myself alone, turning the ride into a MAF test reduces its tedium just a little. What has been apparent, not so much from the test results as from how I feel and what I can do, my ability to ride is at a low point, and the reason why is the topic of this post.

I am trained as a biochemist and I should know all about the various regulatory systems that govern my metabolism, but until recently, I didn't. The reason I didn't is that research scientists (including me) specialize by necessity, so what I learned about metabolic regulation in my introductory courses I largely forgot, and in addition, much of it was obsolete. It is only since I restarted cycling and tracking my training results I have revisited these issues in the hope of better understanding my experiences. What I learned is that my body has various processes that compete for resources; fighting infection, building fitness, and responding to stress being some of the important ones. What are those resources? I don't know for certain, but it could be as simple as food (glucose)! If so, that is pretty stupid on my body's part because I suffer from over-nutrition (I am fat) and so conserving glucose makes no sense for me. That is neither here nor there, because these systems evolved when starvation was an issue, and for better or for worse, I am stuck with them. So, if I am relaxed and not exercising, my body devotes more resources to fighting infection. If I exercise hard to build fitness, this takes resources away from fighting infection, and I have to be careful not to overdo it, or I will end up with a cold. (Similarly, if I have a cold, I will find it more difficult to build fitness.) However, if I am stressed, resources are taken from both fighting infection and building fitness to be used for "fight or flight."

What is stress? When my body's regulatory systems evolved, it was probably things like encountering a saber-toothed tiger. Today, it is being yelled at by my boss, or worrying because I don't know how to pay off my debts. When I retired in 2011, it was to a large extent because interactions at work were difficult, which resulted in stress, and I worried about the effect of that stress on my health. Neither of these sources of stress apply to me today, but others do:

  1. My wife died recently, I am still very sad about that, and that sadness is a form of stress.
  2. My life is undergoing major changes. I am moving away from Houston, a city where I have lived for 30 years, longer than any other place I have lived, a place I love, to live in California.
  3. Besides the stress that results from the unknown described above, there are the practical logistics of selling my house, going through 30 years of accumulated junk to decide what to get rid of and what to keep, figuring out how to get rid of the stuff I am getting rid of, executing my wife's estate in the face of bureaucratic lunacy, etc., etc. This is stressful.
  4. I caught a cold just before leaving California. Although this is not classical "fight or flight" stress, it does take resources away from building (or even maintaining) fitness.
What are the symptoms of stress and how do they impact my cycling? This question brings me to the point of this post. This is probably the most stress I have experienced since I restarted cycling, the symptoms of that stress have been clearer than I have ever witnessed, and I thought it was worth sharing this newfound clarity. What I have noticed is the following:
  1. I am tired all the time, really tired. Since I restarted cycling, I have never gone through a period where I enjoyed riding less. I have often found it hard to start a ride, but always before, I enjoyed my ride once I got out on the road. Now, it is a constant effort of will during the 45 minutes of a MAF test to not just exit the track and ride home.
  2. This high level of tiredness is despite a much lower volume of training than I am used to. Since my wife died, my schedule has been a pretty steady three rides a week, down from five to six rides of week that I manage when nothing interferes.
  3. My heart rate, the measurement that regulates my MAF Test Rides, behaves differently. One of the subjective factors I record from my MAF Test Rides is if legs are limiting or if heart rate is limiting. What I mean by this is do I feel like it is a strain to keep my heart rate above 130 bpm, or rather, when I ride comfortably, am I constantly slowing down because my heart rate drifts over 140. (On my best days, I record "balanced"; my legs and heart are in sync, a comfortable ride results in a heart rate between 130 and 140 bpm.) These days, I mostly record "legs limiting"; I find it hard work to keep my heart rate above 130 bpm. Somewhere I read that a symptom of not being fully recovered from previous workouts is a low heart rate; my heart is trying to take a break. I will try to track down the source of that idea in a future post, but I do think my "tired legs" is my body telling me to save my strength for fight or flight.
I strongly believe that exercise is important for both my physical and mental health. Although I generally believe in listening to my body, I think my body is giving me bad advice at the moment. It is my impression that the medical community believes that chronic stress is an unnatural, and thus harmful state; the tiger should either eat me or go away. My body is telling me not to exercise, but to save my strength for the crisis I am facing, having no idea that this "crisis" is going to persist for a long time, and that the consequences of not exercising for all that time would be vastly worse than the impact of exercising while stressed. That said, I am stressed, exercising while stressed is problematic (I cannot seem to shake my cold, for example), so I have been doing the smallest amount of exercise I feel like I can get away with, thus the three rides a week, and short, easy rides at that.

I usually plan my blog posts a couple of posts in advance, I have an idea of what my next two to three posts are going to be. As often as not, however, those plans change. With that in mind, my current plan is to do one more post from Houston, tying up a few loose ends before leaving, and then the one after that to be the first of what I hope are a long series about cycling in California. Stay tuned to see if I follow that plan.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The MAF Test Must Die

I believe that these MAF test scores reflect with a fair degree of accuracy the ebb and flow of my fitness in the four to five years since I have started riding MAF Tests. In 2012, 2013 and 2014, I found the cold and rainy weather around December discouraging and let my fitness slide. In 2015, I finally overcame that weakness, and maintained fitness during the winter. The smaller drop in fitness in June was the result of a wonderful family trip to Israel. By December of that year, my wife's cancer was approaching its tragic climax, and so I had less and less time for bicycling.
For years, the MAF Test1 ride has been the workhorse of my training. However, starting this fall, I may never do another MAF Test ride again.

Am I abandoning MAF Test rides because I have changed my mind about the value of a MAF Test as a training ride? Not at all. I have always been optimistic but skeptical of the value of MAF Test rides, but I am no more (or less) skeptical now than I was 2 or 5 years ago. Is it because I want to try something different? That certainly could happen, but then I probably wouldn't assume I would never ride a MAF test again; depending on how this hypothetical new idea worked out, I might well go back to riding MAF Tests. So, I have not given up on MAF Tests, I am as enthusiastic about them as I have always been.

Is it because I have finally seen the light, and realized I had been misusing2 the MAF test all along? No, it's not that either. I have known from the beginning that my definition and use of the MAF Test had little if anything to do with the ideas of its inventor, Philip Maffetone. Basically, what I am calling a MAF Test is something I invented, inspired by Dr. Maffetone. If it has any value, he gets all the credit. If it is valueless or even actively harmful, then the fault is mine.

So what is changing as of this fall that is driving the MAF Test ride completely out of my training repertoire? I am moving from Houston, Texas to San Carlos, California, that's what. San Carlos is on the San Francisco Peninsula, a mountain range that defines the western boundary of the San Francisco Bay. Finding a hill in Houston is a challenge. Finding a flat stretch of road in or around San Carlos is an equal challenge, and a flat stretch of road is what a MAF Test requires3, so no more MAF Tests.

How am I going to replace this workhorse of my training schedule? What will I ride instead? My philosophy is when in Idaho, eat potatoes and when in Georgia, eat peaches. In Houston, MAF Test rides made sense, and I believe I derived a lot of benefit from them. I think they helped me maintain and even build fitness while not stressing my body too badly. I think, because they were highly controlled and monitored, they helped me develop a good intuition and body sense as to what constitutes a moderate-intensity ride. However, in San Carlos, the weather is nicer, the scenery is better, the countryside is more accessible, and thus rides are more fun and interesting, and I think I should take advantage of that. Given the intuition and body sense I have developed, I think I can do moderate rides, even when confronted with the inevitable hills, by just listening to my body and taking it easy. I have already been spending a lot of time on the peninsula in preparation for this move, and I have been able to manage easy rides, party because my California bike, a Bianchi Volpe, has very low gears. Its lowest gear is 24 inches, as compared to 28 inches on my Texas bike, my (modified) Surly Crosscheck. This basically means that, on the Bianchi, when I get to what would be the lowest gear on the Surly, I have one more, lower gear to use. As a consequence, I can take it very easy up most hills, and thus can keep intensity moderate when that is the plan for the day. So, my best guess is that in California, I will be much less compulsive, but will identify some rides where the hills never get too out of control, where, by aggressively using my gears, I can keep effort moderate. I expect to wear a heart rate monitor much less often, but might wear it occasionally, ignoring it during the ride4 but looking at its record afterwards to see how good a job I am doing at keeping the ride effort moderate. My older son, Michael, thinks the answer to fitness and good health is to aggressively pick routes with the most insane hills possible and then to ride to exhaustion. I respectfully disagree, at least for me on a daily basis. However, if I ride with him every week or two, his rides will perfectly fill the role of the intense rides on my schedule. There are lots of beautiful, low traffic roads on the peninsula, so putting together long rides will be easy. By doing the right mix of these three kinds of rides, I should be able to reach the maximal level of fitness my aging body can tolerate. Finally, every town in the San Francisco Bay Area has at least one bicycle club, so once I am settled in, I may look for a club to join. Who knows, I may even give randonneuring another go. Stay tuned.

1) For those of you fortunate enough to not have read all my MAF Test blog posts, MAF stands for Maximum Aerobic Fitness. The test is how fast one can ride while not exceeding the maximum effort that can be done completely at a heart rate where the ratio of fat burned to carbohydrate burned is maximized. It is designed to be ridden as a test of one aspect of fitness to be taken about once a month. The "test" is how fast one can ride while not exceeding that heart rate. As I use it, a MAF Test ride is done as a training ride; the test is secondary, the ride and the training gained from that ride is primary. This ride consists of warming up in Heart Rate Zone 1 for about 20 minutes, riding on the Rice Track, carefully keeping my heart rate in Zone 2 for 45 minutes (the MAF Test itself,) and then cooling down by riding in Heart Rate Zone 1 for another 20 minutes. Heart rate zones are as defined by Joe Friel. I believe that Heart Rate Zone 2 corresponds to the heart rate that maximizes the percentage of fat burned, but have not confirmed that by direct measurement. (To do so is a bit expensive.) 

Here are some of my blog posts describing the MAF Test:

2) Here are the ways I have been misusing the MAF Test:
a. I use it as a training ride. As its name implies, the MAF Test is a test, not a training ride. 
b. Because I am using it as a training ride, I perform the "test" much more often than I should. "You should not do the test more often than every month as you risk becoming too obsessed with analysing the results in those cases." (
c. Philip Maffetone has a very specific way for determining the heart rate at which the test is to be performed. Instead of using his heart rate, I use a significantly faster heart rate corresponding to Joe Friel's heart rate Zone 2.
I have reasons that seem sufficient to me for all of these changes, but since I am dropping this ride from my training repertoire, and because I have discussed this all before, I see no reason to repeat my justifications here.

3) In fact, the requirement for a MAF test is more stringent than that; it must be ridden on a flat out and back course with no lights or stop signs and no traffic that would interfere with the ride. Even though Houston is flat, I know of no roads within 30 minutes of my house that would qualify for a MAF Test. Part of the reason the MAF Test became such an important part of my training repertoire is the proximity of the Rice Track, a flat, traffic free course with no stops, the perfect site for this ride.

4) One of the reasons I like the Rice Track for MAF Tests is that, in my opinion, staring at a heart rate monitor while riding in traffic is recipe for disaster.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Sad News

A recurring theme on this blog is the interruption of my bicycling dreams by the realities of life. In some cases, I could explain this fully on the blog. In others, I could not. For example, when my Dad's health began to fail and I had to interrupt my cycling to fly to California to help care for him, I described that in great detail. However, when other things happened, privacy concerns forbade me doing so. Instead, I repeatedly referred to a cryptic post which only said that my cycling was being impacted by something about which I could not blog. Sadly, I now can. In April of 2015, my wife Agi, had her ovarian cancer recur. Ovarian cancer, when it initially occurs, is rarely curable; only 20% or so of women with ovarian cancer are cured. Recurrent ovarian cancer is never curable, so from that date forward, we knew what was coming, but I could not blog about it. Why not? Well, if you know you are going to die, then you have to decide how you are going to live the years or months or days that you have left. Agi, being the brilliant, brave, and practical person that she was, decided that ignoring her cancer was the only rational response, and to do that, the fewer people who knew about it, the better. Thus the title of that cryptic blog post was "I Have No Mouth, but I Must Scream." But now that Agi has finally lost her eight year fight against cancer, there is no longer anything to stop the screaming.

The picture at the top of the post was my wife's commuter bike. Back in 2012, we went through a long process of trying to buy her a commuter, defined very specific criteria for the commuter we wanted, and then never bought anything. (There may have been some cause and effect there.) Whether it was the many cycles of harsh treatment or progression of the cancer itself, by the summer of 2016, she was finding it more and more difficult to commute to work on her road bike, mostly because swinging her leg over the frame was becoming a challenge. At about the same time, Public Bikes had a sale on a very attractive looking commuter, one with a step-through frame which promised to solve that problem. Although we have previously said we would not buy a commuter that Agi could not test-ride first, we abandoned that principle and had them send us one. Agi loved that bike and was able to bike to work a few months longer because of it. In brief, I cannot recommend Public Bikes more highly.

And so, life goes on. For me, but not for Agi. Does this mean a return to regular blogging? Honestly, I don't know. What I do know is that is very much what Agi would want, so I will try with everything I've got. Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Is The Zombie Finally Dead?

Yes it is, Zombie, yes it is. (Zombie on tour, almost 50 years ago.)

"Killing Zombies is the act of rendering the moving corpse completely motionless once again. It can be argued that the term killing is technically inaccurate, as despite the observed locomotion of the zombie, all other life functions have ceased. Still, the point is mostly one of semantics. All you have to do is aim for the head, strike, and don't miss!" from Zombiepedia.

A blog which I follow regularly is "Lovely Bicycle". Lately, I have started to worry about its author because there have been no new posts on her blog for over a month, since April 5. And then it occurred to me, there have been no new posts to this blog for much longer, for almost four months, since January 27. So, the purpose of this post to reassure any readers I might have that my head remains intact and that I still maintain some locomotion, currently riding about 3 days a week. Over a year ago, I posted a non-explanation of personal events that were interfering with my cycling and blogging. Those personal events continue to evolve, not a good thing in this case. I still cannot talk about these events, but they have reached the point where I can no longer reliably post to this blog. I didn't decide not to post, it just happened. I will post again as soon as I can, though I don't know when that will be. See you down the road!

Friday, January 27, 2017

Progress Report: Braes Bayou West

Closed off section of the Braes Bayou Trail, heading west.

Wow. Oh wow. Two months since my last blog post. Worse yet, this is part 2 of a 2 (or 3?) part series which should have followed directly on it's predecessor. I still am forbidden to give any details, all I can say is that life is tough at Chez Zombie right now.

Last post, I described how, out of desperation, I started riding east on the Braes Bayou bike path, and how, when I did, found that it had been significantly improved since I last rode it, making it a delightful alternative when the Rice Track is closed. The one fly in the ointment was a collection of ominous "Path Closed" signs, not blocking the trail, but lined up along the side, threatening a closure at any moment. When headed towards that path for the second time, I was convinced I would find it closed, but open it remained. After a week of riding this path, I started to relax, which is when the axe fell. One day, I rode to the end, and as I headed back, found that the trail had been closed behind me. I begged the workman manning the sign to let me through so I could get back home, and he reluctantly agreed, but shook his finger at me saying "This is for your safety!" In an attempt to figure out how long this closure might last, I asked him why it was closed, which caused him to repeat "This is for your safety!" Blaming myself for having been unclear, I apologized, then explained I was just trying to figure out when I could use the trail again, invoking a third "This is for your safety!", this time at elevated volume. Not wanting to create a situation, I gave up, thanked him profusely, and headed home.

What to do? Rice Track closed. Braes Bayou West closed. Braes Bayou East closed. I tried a ride through the local neighborhoods, which was too short and didn't allow for the intensity I was looking for. I tried White Oak Bayou, which was lovely and delightfully long, but more than I can do on a regular basis. And then I reconsidered Braes Bayou West. Yes, the beginning of the trail was closed, but was there some way I could join the trail downstream of the closure? Indeed there was, and there was a surprise wait for me at the end of the trail.

My alternative route to the Braes Bayou, West bike trail. The route is took is in red. It is a loop, because it made sense to take one route to the trail and a different route returning from it. The normal route I take is in blue. The stretch of the trail closed at the time I made this switch is shown in purple.
The newer stretch of the trail going from South Braeswood (past Gessner) under Highway 8 has been on again, off again closed or open at different times I have ridden it. On this ride, it was open. When I passed under Highway 8 and proceeded to the end of the trail, I came across both a new sign and a new trail:

This sign would not have made sense previously, as there was no trail past this point to close. Now, there appeared to be a completed if not yet open trail, one that promised to cross the oh so important barrier of Highway 59 (a.k.a. US 69.) Should I proceed? To do so would appear to be a violation of the rules and promised to put me in conflict with angry construction workers. But nobody appeared to be around, and the trail looked completed. Maybe it would be OK to go just past the sign, and take a little peek?

Do not be deceived! Although the narrative might suggest that this is the trail proceeding under 59 heading west, I actually took the picture on the way back, so this is the opposite direction. No matter, both sides look the same and this picture makes my point equally well.

Although it seemed clear the path did proceed under 59 as I had hoped, the density of roadways make this underpass look dark and forbidding, a good place for an angry construction worker to hide. But I simply had to know; did this path really go past 59?

It did! Here I am on the other side of Highway 59, looking at the trail ahead. The orange barrier is there to prevent cyclists heading west to east from traversing the trail on which I had just come. It is not very clear in the picture, but the paved trail ends just past the barrier. I have marked the transition from concrete to dirt with the red arrow.

The map above shows just what this trail gets me (or at least will, once it is officially opened.) The red line shows what I rode. The yellow arrow is where the "Trail Closed" sign is, the previous end of the trail. The green arrow shows where the paving ended, at the time I did this ride. And promisingly, the blue arrow shows where I think existing trail picks up again.

So what's the big deal? A few more miles added onto the end of the Braes Bayou trail. Well, these few miles bring you to busy but rideable roads that take you to the trails around George Bush and Terry Hershey parks. Those trails take you to trails around Bear Creek Park. Those trails take you to busy but rideable roads that take you to the White Oak Bayou trails, which connect to the Buffalo Bayou Trails that lead you (with a gap or two yet to be filled) to the East end of the Braes Bayou trail, a circle about 67 miles in circumference, 53 of those miles on trails, 67 miles within the city limits of Houston, Texas. This is all diagrammed on the map below. Wowza.